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Why not? Why can’t Kenya vote via SMS?

In my last post, I promised to share my musings on the Kenyan elections. I did muse a little on this subject at the NDI Conference on Technology and Transparency and in general, the faces of my audience told me that I am too simplistic and that it is impossible. I am not convinced that it is impossible and so, I am sharing it here so that I can be educated – or supported, as the case may be.

The question is  this: in this day and age of mobile money and so on, Why exactly can’t we vote via SMS?

As I see it, we live in the days when millions of SMSes are sent to vote for TV contestants every day – Big Brother Africa, Tusker Project Fame, the African Idols etcetera. We live in the days when we send literally Billions of shillings to each other using mobile money. These are the days when it is surprising to meet an adult who does not have a mobile phone. In Kenya 74% of the total population has a mobile phone – meaning just about every adult and many kids.

Hold that thought.

The way elections are generally done in Kenya as in many parts of Africa, is as follows:

The electoral commission spends a good amount of money transporting ballot boxes and papers to schools colleges and social halls across the country, which are commandeered for the purpose. This generally involves hundreds of vehicles (including 4X4 trucks and helicopters) as well as thousands of people – security, clerks and porters. Several thousand other people are contracted to administer the elections directly.

On election day, Kenyans have to wake up early – often to be at the polling station as early as 3am (to ensure that they vote early). At the polling station when they get to the actual room, they go to one desk where their identities are verified (usually by checking their ID and Voters cards against the [paper] voter registers), they pick their voting papers and take a few minutes to tick their preferred candidates before moving to the ballot box where they insert the ballot paper. In the case of voters who are disabled, invalid, old, near-term pregnant or illiterate, it takes longer to vote. Afterwards, the votes are counted physically well into the night at the polling station with tens of people watching in each polling station (translating to thousands around the country) and after announcement, the results are sent – first electronically, then physically to the elections HQ for tallying. Tallying is not confirmed until HQ has seen the signed results  (paper which has to be driven across the country). Somewhere in the midst of all of this, hanky panky is sometimes done and the results are tampered with.

You will agree with me that this is really a most fallible process.

So, why can’t we vote via SMS?

The way I would see it working is as follows:

We are all required to register our lines against our ID numbers – which the government have in their records. How about we build a database driven application that has all of our phone numbers, Names, ID card details etc. Working with the mobile Operators, the electoral commission would host it with mirrors visible online. The Application is designed to do the following:

  1. First, allow us to choose our constituencies. This would be done by SMSing the name of your constituency to a short code that is tied to the electoral application. I am only allowed to choose once.
  2. Second, on election day, between 8am and 5pm, the  application would allow me to choose my seven representatives (Councillor, Senator, Governor, MP, President etc) using USSD menus one after the other.
  3. Tally the numbers in real time and publish the results every minute – online.

Yes, this is a simplistic solution that has to be bolstered to take care of some aspects like how to help the illiterate etc. But I see it as viable given the number of mobile money users in Kenya and mobile users in Africa. I also see many advantages in saving costs and time. Certainly such a process would considerably cheaper, more transparent and efficient?

Citizens would vote over breakfast and then follow the process of the elections as they go on with their work, be with their families. They would not need to  travel to their rural polling station to vote or uproot their lives for this one election.

Tell me why not.

ADDENDUM (12.09.12): On seeing this post, my good friend Shem Ochuodho, who is currently the senior advisor at the ministry of telecommunications and postal services in Southern Sudan, alerted me that the Kenyan Diaspora has filed a case in court where they have asked that the government use technologically enabled tools to enable the Diaspora to vote. They actually have developed a prototype that shows that this is possible. Read the Full affidavit that they have filed this August or a brief Summary.

I am a writer first and foremost. I am passionate about social entrepreneurship, which I define by finding ways to innovate the world’s processes to make life better for people – whether in business or in the non-profit sector. I am professionally involved at the Open Institute, Thellesi Co and various agricultural ventures.

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